‘Policy making must not be muddied by commercial interest’: Industry lobbying under fire at UN Food Systems Summit

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Could food industry lobbying derail the UN Food Systems Summit? / Pic: GettyImages gremlin
Could food industry lobbying derail the UN Food Systems Summit? / Pic: GettyImages gremlin

Related tags Ultra-processed food Food Systems Summit United nations

As the first UN Food Systems Summit kicks off in New York today (23 September), many hope this historic event will begin to chart a roadmap to a more sustainable, healthy and equitable food system. However, the role that food industry money has played in setting the agenda is already attracting controversy.

The UN Food Systems Summit, the first of its kind, has an ambitious agenda. It aims to ‘change the trajectory of global progress, uniting everyone in a shared commitment to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and the fundamental human rights at their core’, said Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Summit.

National pathways have already been submitted by some 80 countries, with the aim of ensuring food systems are fit for the future of people, planet, and prosperity.

“Over the past 18 months, UN Member States have been working tirelessly to make food systems a top priority with an unprecedented programme of Dialogues,”​ said David Nabarro, Senior Adviser on Food Systems Summit Dialogues.

“These Dialogues have become a critical foundation for the food systems transformation that is urgently needed to drive a recovery from COVID-19 and achieve our shared goals in this crucial decade of action to 2030.”

Hopes are high that the FSS will galvanise action to support the transition towards sustainable food systems in much the same way that previous inter-governmental efforts have helped spur work on climate and biodiversity.

“The UN summit is a seminal moment for sustainable food systems,”​ said FoodDrinkEurope Deputy Director General Dirk Jacobs. “We call on global leaders to use their stage today to keep sustainable food systems at the top of the political agenda to ensure the food and diets we enjoy are both good for us and for the environment.”

The big influence of big business

The influence that so-called ‘big food’ has had over the agenda is already attracting bitter criticism, however. Anecdotally, trust between stakeholders seems to have reached something of a nadir.

“It is true, there is a lot of distrust. It makes discussions and compromises difficult to find,”​ a person involved in the development of one of the FSS’s five action tracks conceded recently.

This distrust has deep roots. Trish Cotter, Senior Advisor and Global Lead of Food Policy Program at Vital Strategies told FoodNavigator that historically the food industry has used its influence – and money – to subvert public policy.

“Industry influence in health policy often spells bad news for people’s health. It is not surprising that with the level of industry engagement in the Food Systems Summit there is scepticism about their role. There are well documented examples of the food and beverage industry’s strategies to manipulate policy by fostering favourable regulatory environments; to capture science by funding ‘own’ research and fostering favourable knowledge environments; and to co-opt some civil society groups by mobilizing a grassroots lobby for Big Food. All of these strategies have resulted in policies that have led to poorer health outcomes, especially for those living in countries with little to no regulation of these products,”​ she suggested. 

The sway the food sector has asserted over the process was already facing a backlash at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in July, when over 300 global civil society organizations of small-scale food producers, researchers and Indigenous Peoples launched a protest at the perceived sway big business had over proceedings.

The People’s Autonomous Response to the UNFSS argued that the Summit 'distracts from the real problems the planet faces at this critical juncture'.

"The Summit is disproportionately influenced by corporate actors, and lacks transparency and accountability mechanisms. It diverts energy, critical mass and financial resources away from the real solutions needed to tackle the multiple hunger, climate and health crises,"​ they argued.

Cotter agrees. “The food and beverage industry’s considerable resources were on full display. We can except to see more of the same this week,”​ she predicted.

“One of the industry’s tactics was to position themselves as part of the process to create a healthier food system. The selections for this year’s Summit Advisory Committee speak volumes with global business leaders represented by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development whose members include Danone, Kellogg’s, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. These five companies are part of the ‘Big 10’ transnational corporations that oversee almost every packaged food product worldwide. It’s a clear example of how industry has become part of the process to engineer solutions that are in their favour.”

For the FSS to earn its stripes as an agenda-setting moment, policy makers need to ‘take a stand against profit-driven commercial influence, to help countries and consumers decrease their reliance on ultra-processed products’.

Cotter conceded that food businesses need to be part of the solution if we are to develop a future fit food system. This does not mean that they can help steer policy, she insisted.

“Let’s be clear: The food and beverage industry is part of our food system. And they do need to be part of the solution. But policymaking focused on a healthy food system cannot be muddied by commercial interests.”

Putting the G in ESG

Aligning food business with the sustainable development goals often focuses on three pillars: the impact of product design and marketing on health and sustainability, the impact of a company’s own operations on the environment and human rights, and the impact of the value chain. This is what is ‘traditionally understood as farm to fork’, according to Nora Mardirossian.

Mardirossian leads the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment's work on aligning the food sector with the Sustainable Development Goals. They believe that a fourth pillar should also be added – good corporate citizenship. By this, they doesn’t mean a company’s philanthropic or CSR activities. They mean governance, lobbying, litigation and tax practices – activities that are often left unchecked.

"Sustainability assessments often start with a value chain map... when you draw out that map you don't typically identify business practices like tax or lobbying... they are really big questions of power and influence,”​ they stressed during a recent webinar, one of the FSS Independent Dialogues.

Mardirossian described governance structures that centre impacts on people and planet as ‘vital’ and observed that companies use ‘various litigation strategies to avoid accountability. “Among the most harmful are those that target human rights and environmental defenders,”​ the food systems expert suggested. Meanwhile tax avoidance strategies are harmful because governments require the ‘hundreds of billions of tax dollars’ that are ‘lost’ each year to mobilise resources in support of the SGDs.

Looking at the progress of the UN summit itself, lobbying is clearly perceived as the greatest threat. “We know government regulation is necessary to guide and enforce business alignment across the SGDs... Companies can and do use their influence and power to prevent legislation and enforcement that might impact their bottom lines,”​ Mardirossian observed.

“In order to transform food systems, we need to make companies sustainable in a holistic fashion... part of the companies’ role is to allow these institutions to function and civil society to flourish,”​ they argued. “You shouldn't do good with one hand and harm with the other.”

The case of ultra-processed foods

During the Food Systems Pre-Summit, one topic that was noticeably missing from the agenda was ultra-processed products, health campaigners have suggested.

Research from Harvard Medical School describes ultra-processed food as containing ‘many added ingredients’ such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavours or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

“The dominance of ultra-processed products in the global food system is cause for serious concern. Intensive production, limited regulation and pervasive marketing have led to rapidly growing sales and consumption in every country around the world. Sales are highest in Australia, the United States and Canada, and they are increasing rapidly in middle-income countries including China, South Africa and Brazil,”​ Cotter noted.

She expressed a concern that the Summit itself could be used as a way for producers of ultra-processed foods to normalise consumption patterns that, to date, aren’t fully entrenched in the Global South.

“Consider the location: The Food Systems Summit is taking place in New York, the archetypal Global North city, where ultra-processed products are so ubiquitous that for many, there is nothing remarkable about them. This provides a lens of normality for the summit. Contrast this with many middle- and low-income countries such as India, Brazil, Ethiopia or Mexico, where traditional diets still exist. For food and beverage companies (most of which are headquartered in the United States or Europe), countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa are viewed as green pastures where sales are projected to grow significantly over the next 10 years,”​ she told us.

“The food industry wants to protect its profits, not our health. The industry would say that ultra-processed products are an emerging area of evidence and discussion. However, there’s no debate about the health harms of ultra-processed products: engineered to be hyper-palatable with high levels of fat, salt and sugar, they lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, among other ills. The evidence there is robust. What is on the table is how they can best be regulated and taxed.”

Cotter wants to see higher levels of regulation for products that fall into the ultra-processed category. She believes this is fundamental to tackling ballooning global obesity rates. This has led to an estimated 11 million preventable deaths each year. In particular, she believes action should be taken to restrict the ‘aggressive’ marketing of these products.

“These low-nutrient foods, which are ready to eat or ready to heat, and are now among the most aggressively promoted and marketed products in the world…

“We can’t let industry tactics stand in the way of building food systems focused on health, not profit. Ultra-processed food and beverage products with glossy packaging, alluring marketing, and hard-to-resist convenience need to be seen for what they are: vectors for obesity and a risk factor for serious disease alongside tobacco, alcohol and other unhealthy commodities.”

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